We live in pain and division. In the world, in the church and within ourselves, there is much anger, hatred and bitterness. It seems ever harder to live at peace with each other, to be calm, to have simple joy within our lives and to not alienate someone just by being. Within ourselves, despite the fact that we have virtually every practical reason to be happy – friends, health, material affluence – we experience anger, jealousy and woundedness. Seldom are we satisfied. Seldom are we truly free of bitterness, anger and feelings of being slighted and overlooked. Very seldom are we fully at peace with life and with others.
Beyond this, we live in a world that is full of painful division. It has its own wounds. Poverty, social injustice, the inequality of women, racism, abortion, sexual exploitation, narcissistic yuppies, untrustworthy political leaders, and simply millions and millions of persons caught up in excessive self-interest. It is hard for us, as adults in our world, to simply love, be understanding, and be at peace with others and with life. We are wounded, within and without. The temptation is towards bitterness, anger, withdrawal and paranoia. That is the road to hell because bitterness is hell.
What is needed to stop our slide toward this is reconciliation, at every level. What is reconciliation? It is reality that admits many levels. Here I want to speak of reconciliation as personal healing, as a coming inside of ourselves to a new wholeness and a renewed sense of childlike joy. Reconciliation, at this level, involves many things. First of all, it involves the recognition of our woundedness, our neuroses, our bitterness, our narcissism and narrow loyalties, and simply of our lack of joy. Just as for an alcoholic there can be no real change before there is the basic admittance of the condition of helplessness and need, so, too, in our struggle to come to personal healing. There can be no healing until we admit sickness. And we are ill: compulsive, angry, competitive, bitter, narcissistic, cynical, humorless, paranoid, self-pitying, jealous, sombre and joyless.
The roots of this woundedness stretch deep into our past, and beyond our past into the history of the world. We are not just part of the chain of love, but are likewise part of the chain of neuroses and wound that stretches back, ultimately, to Adam and Eve. We can sometimes point to certain events and persons that have hurt us deeply and blame much of our pain on them. However, these events and persons themselves point still further back to distant events and persons that wounded them. There was some original sin – and life has not been harmonious, nor seemed fair, ever since.
Reconciliation begins when we truly admit this. So long as we pretend otherwise, it is not even meaningful to use the word. When we claim our woundedness, however, we are brought face to face with our own helplessness, our need, our need for God. Then, as Henri Nouwen puts it, our hearts “become the place where the tears of God and the tears of God’s children can merge and become tears of hope.” (Love in a Fearful Land, Page 93) The first step in real reconciliation is the tearful acknowledgement of our woundedness, our helplessness, our sin. In this admission is a painful dying and a joyous rebirth.
Ashes make the best fertilizer. Tears wash away sin. Honesty induces the labor that gives birth to conversion. When we cry honest tears, we are flooded with the desire to pray, to forgive, to serve others, to build a just social order, to live more moral lives, to love beyond resentment and bitterness. That is the movement toward reconciliation and joy. Why? Because searing honesty brings us face to face with our own woundedness and helplessness; our helplessness, in turn, brings us face to face with a redeeming God. In that encounter, we learn that we are loved sinners. Gratitude is born. A genuine sanctity follows.
Novelist Iris Murdoch once stated that to be a saint is nothing less than to be warmed and vitalized by gratitude. Gratitude is the key to all. We come to personal healing and to reconciliation with others to the exact extent that we are warmed and vitalized by gratitude. To rid ourselves of resentment, bitterness, jealousy and paranoia requires a powerful fire. Only the gratitude that flows from knowing that we are loved, loved despite wound and sin, is a large enough flame to burn wound from our lives. The rest follows: When we are vitalized by gratitude we will automatically move toward deeper prayer, wider loyalties and a more embracing heart. Reconciliation begins when we stare our chaos in the face. In that, we will be brought face to face with our helplessness and our need for God. Prayer will then begin, crying out from the very depths of our being. We will be laid bare and will realize that we are loved sinners, in solidarity with other loved sinners like ourselves. Gratitude, reconciliation and healing will follow.